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|History of Football - The Romans Page # 1|
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world.
How did it start and why is it so popular ?
Ball-playing was popular among the Romans, and they often spent their morning exercises playing games on the field (palaestra) or on courts (sphaerista). To try and put a date on the introduction of "Harpastum" is hard but we can consider that the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC so it is fair to estimate that the Romans discovered the Greek versions of the games shortly after that date.
Originally, the game "pila", which means "ball", was one of the most favourite gymnastic exercises of the Greeks and Romans from the earliest times to the fall of the Roman empire. The various movements of the body required in the game of "pila", gave elasticity and grace to the figure whence it was highly esteemed by the Greeks. The Athenians set high value on it, the Spartans used it as their chief exercise, known as epyskiros or ephebike. The purpose was to kick or throw the "pila" without it touched the ground. Every complete "gymnasium" had a room (sfairisthrion - sfairistra) devoted to this exercise where a special teacher (sfairistrikoj) gave instruction in the art. The game "pila" was as great a favourite with the Romans as the Greeks, and was played at Rome by persons of all ages. The Roman game "pila" was usually played in a room (sphaeristerium) which was located nearby the baths. The game "pila" had many variations, one of them is the Greek "Harpaston" (Phaininda) which became the Roman "Harpastum".
"Harpastum" was a rugby style game (you could use your hands and feet) and was used by Julius Caesar and his generals as a form of military training to improve the physical fitness of the Roman Army. "Harpastum" was known as the "Small Ball Game". This is due to the fact that the other ball games played by Romans had much larger balls. The "Harpastum" ball was made from a stitched leather skin and stuffed with chopped sponges or animal fur. The ball was approximately 8 inches in diameter. The game was a Romanized version of a Greek game called "Phaininda", it involved considerable speed, agibilty and physical exertion. Little is known of the exact rules of the game but we do know that the pitch was rectangular and just a little smaller than an average sized football pitch today. The number of players varied from game to game, some reports suggest games with hundreds of players on each side. The game bore striking similarities to rugby and the players had to get the ball over the opposing line to score. "Harpastum" was an incredibly fast and physical game, it was also quite violent and tackling was allowed. Due to the nature of the game, "Harpastum" was only played on grass or dirt since players were expected to end up on the floor. The Roman poet Martialis (40-104 AD) named this sport "pila pulverulenta" (dust-ball).
Due to the might of the Roman Army and their huge expansion plans, "Harpastum" travelled with their armies to most European countries where it proved quite popular with the local populations in almost all cases. Hence it is the Romans who are responsible for delivering football to other countries and territories around the world. In particular to Britain where the game developed into the game it is now.
The Romans played many other "ball" games, p.ex. "Trigon", "Expulsim Ludere" (handball), "Roman Ball" and field hockey.
The game of "Trigon" was played by three players standing at the corners of a triangle, and was played with a hard ball, also known as a trigon. The impression from the references is that the trigon does not bounce, perhaps being very much like a baseball or softball. The "harpasta" (bouncing handball) is never confused with the trigon. The rules of "Trigon" have never been successfully reconstructed. The object was apparently to throw to another player such that he either could not, or perhaps could, catch it. Feinting plays a part in this game and two balls could be in play simultaneously. Catching a ball left-handed was the sign of a skilled player. Transferring the ball from one hand to the other seems to have been part of the action, in which case feinting may be embodied in this technique along with a reversal of clockwise/counterclockwise play. Batting a ball back rather than catching it seems to have been considered skillful play. Missing a catch was apparently a score for the opponent. To be "struck" with a ball seemed to be part of the object. Since scorekeepers were used, the possibility exists that very complex scoring was involved. "Trigon" is probably the "glass ball game," a reference to a famous player, Ursus, who was so good he played with a glass ball, and never once dropped it. In fact two such glass balls have been found so far. This glass ball has a decorated surface and is known to have been made from a composite of recycled colored glass. Although the Romans probably inherited "Trigon" from the Greeks, there is no record of this game being played in Ancient Greece. However, it was played in Ancient Egypt as far back as 2500 BC. The tomb of Kheti in Bani-Hasan is filled with images of athletes, especially wrestlers, and Kheti is referred as "beloved of Sekhet, Mistress of Sport".
"Expulsim Ludere" was exceedingly popular among the Romans. They used a single wall, playing what is known today as one-walled handball. Handball courts existed at the baths and in private villas, but almost any wall would do for this purpose. Undoubtedly children and boys played this game in the streets. The court (sphaerista) served multiple purposes and handball was definitely one of them. It is less certain that they would have used the playing fields (palaestra) for handball. The baths at Herculaneum has a hard court which is too small for games like "harpastum". The court usually was defined by surrounding walls, while the playing field itself was dirt and hard-packed which would have made a poor surface for handball.
The ancient Romans played many ball games, but not all of them had specific names. Some of the games they described are difficult to reconcile with the games that we know. A number of these games involved play around a circle or circles. There are few games that can be formulated with a ball and a circle, and the following game we call "Roman Ball" represents one of them. This game is so simple that Greek and Roman children may have played such a game. The rules are : draw two concentric circles on the ground (a large one of 20 ft. and a smaller one of 5ft.), three or more players may stand outside the large circle, the ball must bounce in the inner circle (also called "the strike zone") and pass beyond the outer circle, the opponent(s) must try to catch the bouncing ball, if they don't succeed, the thrower gets one point, the player who "saved" the ball may throw it.
Several obscure references exist that suggest that children and adults played a game with a ball around a circle. Isidorus mentions Romans playing a ball game in which he mentions "the circle of players standing by and waiting". Greek children played a game in a circle in which they caught a ball that was thrown or bounced "into the sky". This may or may not have been the same game called "hop-ball" by the Romans. It may also be one of the ancient Egyptian games represented on the walls of Beni-Hassan. The un-named game played by Trimalchio is almost unanimously believed to be "Trigon", yet there are some in congruencies that suggest it may have been a different game. The Spartans played a game that involved a circular field surrounded by a moat, called "Platanistas", but apparently without a ball. The Greek game of "Phaininda" may have been played around a circle, as suggested by E. Gardiner. A version of "Monkey in the Middle" (possibly also "Phaininda") was played around a circle, unlike the modern version played across two sides. Clearly the geometric perfection of the circle had some influence on playing fields of ancient games, whereas in modern games only rectangles are employed. The game called "ourania" (sky-ball) by the Greeks, was likely also played by the Romans. According to E. Gardiner, the ball was thrown up into the air and the object was for the players to catch it. Presumably there would be a circle within which, or on which, the players would stand. However, if the ball came down within the circle it seems impossible for anyone not to catch it. Conversely, if the ball were thrown far outside the circle it would seem impossible that anyone could catch it at all. A thrown ball seems most improbable. The Latin term for propelling a ball, expulsim, could apply equally well to throwing it as to bouncing it off the ground. But only bouncing the ball makes for a playable (i.e. score able) game. It could be that there was only one circle and the thrower stood inside it to bounce the ball skywards. The next person to catch the ball would then step inside the circle. Alternatively, there could have been two circles, which gives us the game of "Roman Ball" as described by the rules above. The ball-game played by Trimalchio in "The Satyricon" is not named as "Trigon", but has been assumed so by many historians. However, several apparent contradictions between this description and "Trigon" remain unexplained. We explore here the postulate that this game was very different from "Trigon", and from all other games, and we call this game "Roman Ball". This may be what Romans meant in general when they referred to "ball-playing" and "ball-players", even though this term could be applied to most ball games. The evidence detailed herein is more circumstantial and inferential than it is conclusive, but it does resolve a number of literary and historical loose ends. Taking it literally, the description of the game played by Trimalchio in "The Satyricon" was played around a circle, not a triangle, and therefore is completely distinct from "Trigon". The ball bounces and therefore this must be a small "pila", or the same ball used in "expulsim ludere" (handball). The trigon was a hard ball. Balsdon states that this was a serious game with each player having his own scorer, called a "pilicrepus", and his own ball-boy, and that more than one ball could be in play at a time. In "The Satyricon" there was only one scorer. "Trigon" is played by three players, presumably, but Trimalchio plays with a "bunch" or a "troupe" of boys. Furthermore, Trimalchio does not seem to be any kind of serious ballplayer, he was wearing sandals and playing the game purely for leisure. The scoring of Trimalchio's game could be done either by counting the catches, or the misses. Our experiments, in fact, made this quite obvious. In "Trigon", the ball is scored only when it is dropped, although it is possible that catches were scored up to 21 points, at which the game would likely end as a tie if no ball had been dropped. "Roman Ball" may be the game described as "hop-ball" by LaFaye and by Carcopino. Since the ball must bounce in the center circle, it could be described as "hopping." Alternatively, having experimented with this style of play, we find that players must often jump or "hop" to catch the ball, as it tends to fly over their heads. "Roman ball"-players are in a crowd, instead of being in a triangular position. There is only one ball in play and it is high in the air. The players are not dressed for as serious a game as "Trigon" with togas on they can't be using both hands. Being a game of pure fun, the scoring, and the clothes, may be of less importance.
One of the most ancient ball games, if not the most, field hockey predates the Romans and Greeks. It was played by the Egyptians at least as far back as 2500 BC, and perhaps before 2800 BC. Wall paintings from the tomb of Kheti in Beni Hasan shows two players with crooks and a large ball. The ancient Greeks adopted field hockey from the Egyptians. A marble relief from Athens shows Greek athletes playing field hockey. It is likely that this game is still played today in much the same as its original form. No images survive from Rome showing field hockey and references are scarce, but the fact that field hockey survived into the Middle Ages in Europe seems to confirm its' popularity with the Romans. The French, Dutch, and others played field hockey, or variations of field hockey that went by the names Cambuca, Chole. The British knew this game as Bandy Ball. The Dutch came up with a variation played by teams in which the ball was hit by a crook towards a target. Later, this game became an individual sport known as Kolf, which the Scottish call Golf.
Nevertheless, after many years, the Romans lost their empire, the idea of playing "ball games" still existed. The remains of the Roman empire are spread over Europe, important constructions are the amphitheatre and the Roman baths, both combined with a playground called "palaestra".
On the next page you'll find some... more background information.
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